by David W. T. Brattston

Compared to twentieth-first-century believers, early Christians wrote surprisingly little about homosexuality. While some Christian writers in the first two and a half centuries appear to condemn all forms of homosexual behavior, most commented on only specific aspects of it, such as intercourse with minors. No author of this period singled out homoerotism as an especially repulsive sin but mentioned it only incidentally when discussing other matters.

Disapproval of homosexual activity—or certain aspects of it—appeared early in the Church. In the New Testament are 1 Corinthians 6.9 and 1 Timothy 1.10. Contrary to some misinterpretations, Romans 1.27 does not say it is a sin, but a punishment for prior misdeeds.

Some church fathers in the second century continued this seemingly negative bent: Aristides of Athens1 in AD 125; the well-traveled Justin the Martyr in the City of Rome in mid-century,2 Athenagoras (also of Athens),3 Bishop Melito of Sardis in Turkey4 in the 170s, Bishop Irenaeus in France5 in the 180s, and Clement of Alexandria (dean of the world’s foremost Christian educational institution)6 in the 190s. Another second-century bishop who made passing references against it was Polycarp,7 a disciple of the Apostle John and, later, teacher of Irenaeus. Polycarp was probably “the angel of the church in Smyrna” addressed in Revelation of John 2.8. Another book of revelations, those of the Apostle Peter, was of like mind in the first half of the century.8 The recently-discovered Gospel of Judas (also second-century) condemns it,9 inferring that it was a corruption newly introduced into Christianity by mainstream believers, i.e. not Gnostics.

Transitioning into the early third century was Tertullian,10 a converted ex-lawyer who became a clergyman in Tunisia, and founder of Latin Christian literature. Always a rigorist, he was more prepared to condemn debatable practices as sin than were other writers before the middle of the century.

The present study concludes at AD 249-251, a time of severe persecution, mass apostasy, and upheaval in the church. It approximately coincides with the death of Origen, who had succeeded Clement as dean, and later became the leading Bible scholar, teacher, and preacher of his own day and for centuries afterward.11

These were all voluminous authors who touched on homoeroticism only a few times amid a huge mass of material on other activities.

The most commonly mentioned aspect of same-sex gratification was intercourse with young boys. Pederasty was considered sinful by some church fathers who wrote nothing against relations between adult males. Among them were a bishop of Antioch (Syria) in the mid-second century12 and a friend and financial backer of Origen.13 Four comprehensive collections of Christian ethics and life were produced before AD 230, none of which forbids homosexuality.14 One prohibits oral sex, but only by a woman on a man.15

Depending how broadly or narrowly their wording is interpreted, some ancient believers may have censured only particular types of homosexual acts while allowing others. Polycarp, the Revelation of Peter, Irenaeus, and Origen prohibited "men abusing themselves with men" and "men defiling each other". The question arises whether homosexual acts in themselves are abusive and defiling or whether God forbids only those homoerotic positions that abuse or defile due to other factors. After all, heterosexual relations may or may not be abusive or defiling, even between spouses. By being specific, did these early Christians suggest that some kinds of same-sex relations could be loving and enriching, and therefore permitted to Christians?

Some of the abovementioned authors quoted Leviticus 18.22 to the effect that males are forbidden "to lie with a man as with a woman". Although some homoerotic acts are imitations of heterosexual ones, others are anatomically possible only between males. A conservative interpretation of Leviticus and these church fathers would forbid only the simulations of regular sex but permit uniquely male-male positions. Those magazines at the drugstore indicate that gays use a wide variety of techniques, and do not lack imagination.

In addition to how restrictive an interpretation is to be given to "men lying with men as with a woman", there is the issue of whether this prohibition is binding in our day. It would not apply if its sinful nature was rooted in social/cultural factors rather than eternal anatomical differences. In the world of the Bible and the early Church, women occupied a position subordinate to males, with a status little different from slaves or animals. Thus, treating a man sexually as if he were a woman may have been forbidden only because it meant subjecting him to an inferior status, thus abusing and defiling him psychologically and socially in that culture. If so, the ban was not aimed at same-gender sensual gratification as an evil in itself and thus might not apply in an age of equality between the sexes.

Anal penetration with a penis (sodomy properly so described) was condemned in the middle of the second century by Justin Martyr16 and the Acts of John 36. They did not mention other homoerotic positions, and forbade such penetration in heterosexual relations also. It is strange that so few early Christian writers condemned it, for it is harmful in itself because too frequent indulgence weakens the rectal muscles and creates problems in defecation. The rarity with which it was discountenanced may indicate that some New Testament and other early Christian authors meant only sodomy when condemning homosexual activity.

The foregoing study raises a number of questions. Are all homosexual relationships abusive and defiling in themselves or are they permissible when these elements are absent? Are all varieties of homoerotic acts a sin or only those positions in which a participant is demeaned or degraded by the standards of his own culture, or are imitations of heterosexual positions? At what age does a boy become a man, thus rendering intercourse no longer pederasty?

The foregoing presentation partly distorts the focus and preoccupations of early Christians in two respects. First, homoeroticism was touched upon by less than seven percent of the five hundred-plus extant Christian writings of the period. Ninety-three percent did not mention homosexuality. Still less did any single it out for special condemnation but regarded it as one sin among many, no better, no worse. As in Origen's opposition to "the lovers of money, and the lovers of ambition, and the lovers of boys",17 the ancient Christian writers always mentioned it in company with other offences, never alone. All the citations against homosexuality in this article appeared only in lists or general discussions: one passing mention amid a host of other material. No author in the first three centuries devoted a chapter, let alone a book, to the phenomenon. Most references consist of only one or a few words. Unlike some in the twentieth-first century, early Christians did not treat it as the greatest sin or as especially important.

Secondly, early Christian writers condemned gluttony, greed, and untruthfulness at significantly greater length and with much more frequency than homosexuality. Individual authors and the consensus of Christians before AD 251 regarded these offences as more deserving of condemnation than what a minority does in their bedrooms. This may help account for the absence of adult homoerotism in ancient Christian moral codes. Selfishness, gossip and lying appear to have been much more common and to have warranted more frequent condemnation in Christian antiquity than homosexuality.  

1 Apology 8, 9, 13, and 17.
2 1 Apology 27; 2 Apology 12.
3 Legatio 34.
4 On Pascha 53.
5 Against Heresies 4.27.4 and 5.11.1.
6 Paedagogus 2.1, 2.10.
7 Letter to the Philippians 5.3.
8 Revelation of Peter 32.
9 Gospel of Judas 38, 40.
10 Apologeticum 46; Against Marcion 1.29.4; De Corona 6; On Modesty 16.
11 Commentary on Matthew 14.10; Commentary on Romans 4.4.8, 9.28.2; Dialogue with Heraclides and other Bishops 10.9; Homilies on Jeremiah 12.11.1; Homilies on Leviticus 4.4.4, 14.2.4; Letter to Friends in Alexandria.
12 Theophilus To Autolycus 2.1.
13 Ambrose the Deacon Hypomnemata.
14 Letter of Barnabas, Didache, Didascalia, Sentences of Sextus.
15 Letter of Barnabas 10.8.
16 2 Apology 12.5.
17 Commentary on Matthew 10.24.  


© 2012 David W. T. Brattston

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